Legalised pot takes on state of the union

Last updated 09:00 24/02/2013
Academy of Cannabis Culture and Technology


CASH CROP: Jason, of the Academy of Cannabis Culture and Technology in Seattle, Washington, with plants grown legally for research and medical purposes.

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US correspondent Nick O'Malley travels to Washington state to check out the new drug laws, and is left dazed by what he finds.

I was part-way through an interview with a defence lawyer and an AIDS activist when a warm sensation stole over me.

I had been in the activist's illegal grow-house, inspecting a little stainless steel mixing bowl full of capsules of intensely concentrated cannabis oil he had extracted the night before from two garbage bags full of buds. Their skin was greasy and they glowed a dull green when I held them up to the light.

Half an hour later we were discussing medical uses of pot when their voices seemed to fade and I found myself gazing happily at a door.

"Can those things make you stoned just by touching them?" I asked the activist.

"Ah, shit," he said. "Sorry." He added unhelpfully: "Jesus. Look at your eyes."

I had come to Washington state to write about how the authorities had legalised marijuana after a referendum in the November presidential election, a move that shocked the rest of the nation.

Washington - like Colorado, which passed different measures to similar effect - did not take the baby step of decriminalising use of the drug, nor did it legalise by stealth by broadening a medical marijuana program.

Instead, voters chose to legalise and regulate the growth, processing, sale and possession of marijuana for recreational purposes.

This, says the former Washington State Bar Association president Salvador Mungia, one of the reform's champions, is how alcohol prohibition ended 80 years ago. First states stopped enforcing federal laws. Then they stopped enforcing the mirroring state laws the federal government had demanded they introduce. Then they began repealing their own laws, dismantling the legal foundations of prohibition.

Perhaps. Either way, getting to know your way around Washington state's hazy pot politics can be a little jarring. Proponents of the new laws tend to look like Mungia, who as he sits in a suit at the conference table of an upmarket law office preparing for a deposition, tells me he has never smoked pot, let alone inhaled.

Among the fiercest opponents of the drug laws is Sensible Washington, a pro-pot advocacy group that has been fighting for the repeal of laws against marijuana for years.

From the window in his corner office in the fifth floor of the glassy Seattle State House, the City Attorney, Pete Holmes, looks out at three stolid public buildings, all linked by a forbidding overhead bridge that casts shadows over two of Seattle's main streets.

It is an enclosed tunnel through which felons are escorted high above two of the city's main avenues from a jail, over an administration building and into the courthouse. But the bleak windowless shaft looks more industrial than pedestrian.

"It's ugly as hell," says Holmes as he looks at the skyline. He is talking about the architectural blight, but once you've spoken to him for a while you realise he could be talking about the pointless machinery of arrest, incarceration and release.

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Holmes became the Seattle City Attorney in 2010 after a campaign in which he argued against the building of a planned new jail. He said as the city's chief prosecutor he could bring down the number of prison beds needed by targeting prosecutions more carefully, particularly by abiding by a citizens' initiative in 2003 decreeing that Seattle police should consider the marijuana possession laws as their lowest priority.

Shortly after he was elected, Holmes announced he would no longer prosecute people for marijuana possession. The police made their feelings known by baiting him with increased arrests.

Meanwhile another group was putting together different reforms that would have strengthened the protections for medical marijuana users. At the time, under Washington state law people with doctors' certificates were not protected from arrest, although they had a strong defence if arrested. Finally, the state's governor, concerned that passing such a law would force state employees to break federal laws, vetoed the bill.

"That was the last straw for me," says Holmes. He was sure prohibition had failed. The state was awash with "BC bud" - cannabis that flowed south from British Columbia across the border in Canada, as well as the marijuana, crystal meth and heroin that followed the smuggling lines up from Mexico. A study showed it was easier for a 14-year-old to buy pot than a six-pack of beer. And despite his own moratorium on prosecutions in Seattle, people were flowing through the prison system across the state after being convicted on small possession charges.

Holmes had moral concerns, too. "Prohibition has been implemented in a racially disproportionate manner," he says. "It has made us the No. 1 jailer nation on the planet, both in absolute and relative terms, and it has made criminal enterprises incredibly wealthy.

"One statistic from the US Justice Department that appears to be pretty solid shows that of the Mexican drug trade, 60 per cent is marijuana ... That means 60 per cent of the 50,000 murders [in the Mexican drug war], 60 per cent of the lawlessness."

He began discussing what real marijuana reform would look like with Alison Holcomb, the American Civil Liberties Union drug policy director in Washington. They decided reforms should recognise the efficacy of medical marijuana for some patients, while dismantling the farce that for a time had led to the existence of more pot dispensaries in Seattle than Starbucks outlets.

Reforms should replace the black market with a legal market and generate tax revenue for the state.

As the two bounced drafts of a bill back and forth, Holcombe built a political campaign. By the time what became known as Initiative 502, or I-502, was passed, $US6 million ($5.8 million) would be raised and spent on the campaign and its associated polling and focus group testing. Those backing the bill wanted to know not so much what marijuana users wanted from the law, but what the rest of society did not want. Then they set about allaying those fears.

Driving under the influence would be banned and strictly policed, and possession would be illegal for anyone under 21. Using pot would be legal, but only in private - Seattle would not become a new Amsterdam.

In 2011, Holmes went public with an opinion piece in the conservative Seattle Times advocating an end to marijuana prohibition. He was stunned a couple of days later when the paper endorsed his position in its editorial. So was the left-leaning weekly publican The Stranger, which wrote: "You could've knocked our stoned, tax-and-spending asses over with a feather when the Times editorial board wrote on February 18: 'Marijuana should be legalised, regulated and taxed."'

The Stranger reported that former and serving police and judiciary backed the reform, as did the entire city council. And many state politicians were on-side.

After a generation of failure by the pro-pot activists, Holcomb and Holmes saw their reform pass easily on presidential election night last November. Suddenly marijuana possession was legal in Washington, and the state's Liquor Control Board found itself having to quickly build a regulatory system.

Under that system, by the end of the year it is expected the state will begin issuing three types of licence for the growth, processing and sale of pot.

No one person or company will be allowed to own two licences. Growers will sell to processors, who will package marijuana products and produce foodstuffs and drinks to be sold by retailers.

At each step along the way, the state will put out its hand for 25 per cent tax.

The state budge office predicts the cost of legal marijuana will be comparable to the black-market price of about US$13 a gram.

People will legally be able to buy one ounce (28 grams) of smokable marijuana, 16 ounces of edible products or 72 ounces of THC-infused liquids.

Approved retailers will be allowed to sell marijuana products only, and they must not be established within 1000 feet (about 330 metres) of schools. However, growing crops of pot will remain illegal.

A few blocks down the hill from Holmes's office, Doug Hiatt of Sensible Washington shares some battered old rooms with a few other defence lawyers, and from there he leads an angry campaign against the reforms.

He wears his greying hair in a ponytail and is prone to T-shirts with anti-drug war slogans. He has been fighting to legalise pot since he first defended a jailed AIDS patient 20 years ago. His problem is not that I-502 liberalises the drug laws, but that they did not go far enough and make further reform harder. He speaks in long, loud frenetic bursts of language laden with detail and obscenity. After a 20-minute blast shortly after we met, I tell him: "Mate, you're going to have a heart attack." "I'm not going to have a heart attack," he bellows back. "I'm going to f---ing kill somebody."

One of Hiatt's main concerns is the new driving-under-the-influence laws - now known as "green DUI". As part the campaign to win mainstream support, those backing 1-502 made the laws against green DUI tougher than those against alcohol. Those caught with more than five nanograms of active marijuana per millilitre of blood face prosecution. For those under the age of 21, there is no legal level of pot in the system.

The impact on young people and medical marijuana patients could be catastrophic, Hiatt says .

"You try and get a student loan with a green DUI on your record. Try and get insurance."

That night we drive out through the Seattle suburbs to a grow-house being constructed by Dale Rogers. Rogers was found to be HIV-positive in 1987, when he was 18, though he is in good health today.

Pot's anti-nausea properties have helped him keep down the mountains of pills he needs to take. It has stimulated his appetite and helped him gain weight. It has decreased his stress and improved his sleep. And it was the only drug that effectively treated his crippling neuropathy.

As an activist and member of a medical marijuana collective, Rogers has made no secret of the fact he has broken the medical marijuana laws, but he has never been arrested - partly, he and Hiatt believe, because of his high profile.

Now Rogers worries he might fall foul of the new laws. While he can own an ounce of pot, he can't grow the drug in bulk, nor share it among other patients - the point of his collective. Nor does not want to buy pot from the newly licensed stores, because, like many medical marijuana users, he has built relationships with specialist growers.

Rogers shows me the equipment he used the night before to refine his marijuana concentrate, then hands me the capsules I naively pick up to inspect. Soon I start fading out.

Hiatt is on a rhetorical role. He believes only the complete repeal of all anti-marijuana laws, coupled with minimal regulation, will kill the black market.

"The only thing that competes with the black market is a free market," he says. "If you ain't got a free market, you ain't going to solve the problem - I don't care if it's marijuana or peanut butter.

"Goddammit, Nick, if I outlawed peanut butter tomorrow, there's going to be a f---ing black-market in peanut butter three days later."

Holmes disagrees. "People don't make gin in their bathtubs any more," he says. "It's easier to buy it in a shop."

As for prohibition, since the new law was passed, Holmes has taken calls from officials in many other states asking how it was overturned.

Now they all have to wait to see if the federal government will step in to preserve prohibition from above.

- FFX Aus

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